Month: September 2013

The Garden in September

Ah, September — maybe my favourite month. Some years, the best weather comes in September — warm but not hot, with just enough rain to start the “fall spring,” when some spring blooming plants put out a few last flowers, when leaves start to turn colour and the garden prepares to withdraw into the relative quiet of winter.

The last few days, instead of thinking up stuff like this, I have been busting my butt in said garden. Predictions of a major rain- and windstorm motivated me to mow, clip and rake, cut down stuff and get the compost heaps into shape. That means doing something with the finished compost to make room for the millions of leaves that I will rake up in October. Out come the wheelbarrow and spade. I shovel compost into the wheelbarrow and then re-shovel it out, spreading it among perennials and under shrubs. I’m most generous in spots beneath trees, where plants have to compete with tree roots.

While the body labours, the mind wanders, and throws out some fanciful notions — such as that the garden is like a world, with peoples and nations ebbing and flowing. What happened to that patch of Irish moss (Sagina subulata)? It was crowded out by colonizing Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and is now only a memory. And these asters became refugees, fleeing the onslaught of sweet violets and snow-in-summer (Cerastium). Do plants tremble at the coming of the almighty gardener, in size 9 “duck shoes,” bearing a spade in one hand and secateurs in the other? Plants live or die by my will on this 50 x 120 foot patch (except for bindweed, that is). Legions of wood lice and centipedes flee when I come to destroy their compost heap empire. Ha!

In the end, the garden looks pretty good and the compost area is neat and tidy, ready for all those leaves. Bring on the rain and wind!

September 26, 2013

Aster frikartii "Monch"

Aster frikartii “Monch”


So Many Books…

I am looking at two piles of books.

And now so are you.


The pile on the right are books I have checked out from my public library. The pile on the left are books I own. I am in various stages of engagement with these books.

I have started, but not finished, reading nine of the eleven. I have just finished reading one of them, and have not yet started on another.

Four of the books are fiction, one is poetry, the rest are nonfiction.

So how did I come to assemble these particular books at this particular time?

Certainly not by intention. It just happened. I’ll try to reconstruct the process chronologically.

It began months ago when I bought a load of books at a used bookstore here in Victoria. It’s called Russell Books and is quite well known — for good reason. A person could spend hours in there browsing and emerge with enough books to cause back (and brain) strain. Among my choices that day were two by Pauline Gedge — House of Dreams, set in ancient Egypt and The Eagle and the Raven, set in Roman Britain. Another was Orfeo by Hans-Jurgen Greif. (Other books I bought that day are in a different pile elsewhere).

I started reading House of Dreams, which I had read before and enjoyed, but for some reason my interest lapsed two-thirds of the way through, and I began on The Eagle and the Raven instead. It’s a much longer book, and I see by the position of my bookmark that I got only one-eighth of the way into it before I abandoned it (temporarily) for something else. What that something was, I have no idea. I started and finished reading many other books since then.

Why did I choose these books? I knew Pauline Gedge’s work and thought well of it. I found House of Dreams uniquely interesting the first time I read it (library copy), so decided to buy it. The other title by this author tagged along, probably because of its size; I have a weakness for big, fat paperbacks. Orfeo is about music and musicians, a relatively rare topic in popular fiction, so it caught my attention. But it’s actually literary fiction and a translation to boot, so I found it more work to read than I expected. I still find the basic premise (a perfect voice embodied in an androgynous individual and its impact on others) fascinating, so fully intend to finish reading it.

Christopher Lloyd’s In My Garden was part of the Russell Books purchase, and I began reading it concurrently with a re-reading of Henry Mitchell on Gardening. For some reason I was in the mood for a double serving of garden writing a couple of months ago, and have been dipping into these two books on and off for weeks. I finished the Lloyd book a few days ago, and since I’ve read the Mitchell book before, it doesn’t really matter that I haven’t finished it this time. (Last week’s post was about these two garden writers, BTW).

Sometime this summer I read a book about the post-mortem adventures of the pharaoh Tutankhamen’s mummy (The Shadow King, by Jo Marchant). That got me thinking about the whole business of Egyptology, specifically the study of mummies. It struck me as never before how offensive this practice is, never mind what we have learned from it about ancient Egyptians and their culture. When these individuals were buried, with great expenditure of resources and elaborate ceremonies, the intention was that they should remain buried forever. Three thousand years is pretty close to “forever,” but that makes the opening of tombs, removal and especially unwrapping of mummies seem all the more sacrilegious (and yes, I do know about the ancient grave-robbers). Thinking about all this, I decided to find out more about the Valley of the Kings, which led me to John Romer’s book of that title.

Soon after this, a couple of similar books came to my attention through my work (in the same public library these books came from), so I put in requests for them. They arrived at the same time (a common occurrence), which accounts for the presence of The Millionaire and the Mummies by John M. Adams and The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox. The first of these is about the 19th century millionaire “archaeologist” Theodore Davis and his exploits in the Valley of Kings. The second is about the deciphering of the Linear B script of ancient Crete, a topic I had bumped into years ago and which suddenly seemed interesting again.

Added to the pile around the same time as the above was Zoopolis : a political theory of animal rights by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka. I heard an interview with the authors on CBC Radio, and instantly decided to have a look at the book, because it addressed a topic close to my heart. The book is academic  in tone and densely packed with argument and counter-argument, so I have made relatively little progress on it thus far.

That’s the trouble with nonfiction, however interesting or well-written — it takes more time and attention than most fiction, and when a whole raft of such books arrives on the To Be Read pile all at once, everything stalls.

I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a break by reading a novel for a change, and  selected The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry because the content summary looked interesting:  the ghost of a murdered girl in World War II Hong Kong selects another girl, living in Hong Kong in the 1960s, as a “host.” Hints of dark secrets and desperate lies. The trouble was, none of the characters was appealing and some were downright appalling, so the all-important mental engagement with the book never happened. Right now I’m not sure I’ll go back to it.

Then last week I was commenting on someone else’s blog post and mentioned a poem by Robinson Jeffers that made an impression on me years ago. I mis-cited it as The Inhumanist, when the title is actually The Double Axe. I got the book out to confirm this and decided it would definitely be worth rereading.

And finally — a book that got left out of the picture because it was on a different table. The Secrets of Lost Cats by Dr. Nancy Davidson describes the clinical psychologist’s fascination with lost cat posters and her efforts to track down the people who put them up. This one intrigued me because I like cats and the idea seemed quirky and obvious at the same time. It’s actually a fairly easy read and I’m about a third of the way through it.

So what does all this tell me?

First: I’m not managing my reading very well. I should know better than to start more than one heavy, serious book at any given time. It’s better to make note of interesting titles and space out the reading of them over months or years.

Second: an undisciplined reader is probably better off owning, rather than borrowing (except for the space and weight factor).

Third: selecting books to read is a matter of impulse. Yes, I need the information, fictional experience, reassurance or companionship offered by these particular books, as suggested by their jacket blurbs or (in the case of rereads) by memories of former experiences. It’s sort of like selecting items from a generously furnished all-you-can-eat buffet — the pile of food on the plate soon exceeds one’s appetite and stomach capacity.

Fourth: as each book is selected, expectations form around it, which may not be fulfilled. Maybe I expect to absorb the facts and arguments presented in a book more easily than proves to be the case. Maybe I expect congenial characters or opinions the same as mine. If those expectations are not fulfilled and are not replaced with something I perceive to be equally worthwhile, chances are I will part company with that book (and the pile will grow smaller!)

Two Garden Writers

Garden writing is a sub-genre of nonfiction. It’s not how-to-grow-it manuals, nor lists of plants for different purposes, but essays by gardeners, inspired by their experiences in their own gardens, with observations on gardening in general. Often, these writings are collections of columns or articles originally published over a period of years, arranged by topics or — a very common device — by the months of the year.

Right now I am reading (as well as a dozen other books), Christopher Lloyd’s In My Garden : the garden diaries of Great Dixter. Lloyd, who died in 2006, was well-known for his columns in Country Life and other British publications. His famous garden at Great Dixter, in Northiam, East Sussex, was (and still is) open to the public.

As I read, I find myself unconsciously comparing Lloyd’s quirks and writing style with those of another notable garden writer, the American Henry Mitchell, who until his death in 1993 wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post. Many of these columns have been compiled into three books — The Essential Earthman, One Man’s Garden and Henry Mitchell on Gardening. They are among my favourite books and I return to them regularly.

Superficially, these two gardeners appear to be a study in trans-Atlantic contrasts. Lloyd was a horticulturalist by training and profession; Mitchell was a journalist and amateur gardener. Lloyd attained near-celebrity status in his lifetime, while Mitchell was known mainly to readers of the Washington Post until his collected columns were published. Great Dixter is a large property with a 15th century house and features such as topiary, a meadow, an orchard and a famous long border. Mitchell gardened on a suburban lot, often referring to it as “my cat-run garden.” Their writing styles differ as well — Lloyd strikes me as being a bit acerbic with a touch of gleeful malice at times, but hiding personal feelings behind a British reserve. Mitchell’s writing is folksy and colloquial, and is occasionally quite self-revealing, as in “Budding Romance,” where he speaks of ill-health and the emotional attachments of gardeners to certain plants.

Having read a lot of Mitchell, and now some of Lloyd, I begin to see a few similarities. Both men gardened on clay soil; neither had much use for manicured lawns. Mitchell, I think, had little or no lawn; Lloyd had a meadow of “rough grass,” mowed three times a year, in which various wildflowers flourished. Both gardeners loved exotics and tropicals. Mitchell writes at length of his efforts to get various plants through the winter by bringing them into his house or setting up protective mulches and windbreaks. Mitchell’s house was full of rescued agaves, while Lloyd favoured ferns.

Mitchell loved bearded irises and old roses. Lloyd dismissed bearded irises as too labour-intensive, and disparaged old roses as “a week of glory followed by a diseased mess for eleven months.” Mitchell, for his part, disparaged the English climate: “England has a dreadful climate, hardly any sun and, surprisingly, not enough rain either. Things grow slowly there.” Mitchell liked plants to grow as large and lush as possible, and luxuriated in swags of roses and garlands of clematis.

These differences were superficial. Both men were passionate gardeners who wrote about their passion, and this shows in their writing, which I can’t recommend too heartily. In preparation for a garden-less winter, get hold of their books. They will keep you company through the dormant months and inspire you with plans and intentions for spring.

I will finish with two typical quotations:

Of course gardening is not for enjoyment. No, no, indeed not. It was never intended to be. There is no virtue in enjoyment. The hard grind, the solid slog, these are the character-forming attributes of our — I nearly said hobby — of our mission. Christopher Lloyd, “Discovery and Revelation,” In My Garden.

What the right flower can do, with luck, is heal the gardener, making him fit (more or less) to love, by steps however slow. Growing old, still in awe, still sitting at her feet. Henry Mitchell, “Budding Romance,” Henry Mitchell on Gardening.

Networked To Death

A writer who decides to network by following others’ blogs and commenting on them soon finds that he or she has little time for any original writing. It takes a lot of time and mental energy to read posts and make thoughtful comments on them. Even following only half a dozen blogs, I find that sincere efforts at comprehending and responding take the edge off my creative efforts and sap the energy I need to write fiction. And I’m not even involved in the most common “social media” — only blogging, Goodreads and LinkedIn. (And two critique groups, and the odd beta-reading gig, and endless revision of my trilogy).

So I’m left with the usual Hobson’s choice (who was Hobson, anyway?): remain isolated, viewing from my lonely tower the busy scuttle of networked folks, or get down there and join them, leaving my tales unfinished and the pages blank.

Or maybe it’s just that I have a full-time job that eats up a lot of my time and energy, leaving only two or at most three hours a day for writing-related activities. If I were in a position to divide my entire day among writing, networking, gardening and basic stuff like cooking, cleaning, bathing, socializing with the cat and talking to people face to face, it might work. But right now, when I leave the house at 7 a.m. and don’t return until 5 p.m. or later, the only things I manage to write are blog posts and comments or nothing at all. My writing style requires total mental immersion in my fictional world, leaving it only to go to work and maintain important relationships. Blogging, Goodreads and all the other connective activities need another sort of mindset altogether.

Trying to do both results in a worm-like suspicion that I’m doing only half a job of either, and inevitably it’s the creative writing that suffers. I wonder what this is doing to writing as a whole. And reading, come to that. Is there any point in writing works of fiction if no one has time to read them because they’re too busy blogging, commenting and updating their status?

And now there’s Project O, an admirable attempt at creating worldwide dialogue by an energetic blogger who calls himself Opinionated Man. He will be posting two or more contributions a day for weeks. Because I decided to participate, I read most of the contributions. If I decide to comment on anyone’s contribution, I read it at least twice, to make sure I understand what the person is saying. It’s rewarding and gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling of connectivity, but it’s yet another time sucker.

(So is this an extended excuse for not writing any new fiction? Maybe. It’s amazing how many writers end up writing about writing, rather than actually writing. Some would say that’s a Good Thing, actually).

Good things are not universally good, and some bad things are good things in disguise. The trick is to see the difference.

The Garden in August

The word for this month is “dry.” Really dry. Only 9 millimeters (0.35 inches) of rain since June 27th. Hoses, sprinklers and watering cans are getting a lot of use, but despite that, the scene has a brownish tinge.

August 25, 2013

This is how I began this post a few days ago. But that evening we had rain, quite a heavy shower. Things got wet, the soil sopped up the moisture. A few more bouts of rain followed, for a total of 17 millimeters (0.67 inches) — not that much, but enough to water the entire garden without me having to lift a bucket or drag a hose. Bliss for the dry-summer gardener!

Tomatoes are getting an orange tinge, and visits by raccoons and deer have tapered off. Quite a few of the tough plants that cope well with drought and/or shade are putting on a late summer show, such as these mulleins, echinops and Verbena bonariensis in the ex-vegetable patch.

August 25, 2013

Regular visits to the pond by raccoons have rendered some areas a near-desert (typical gardener exaggeration here), but recent efforts to clean it up, and the rain recharge, have been encouraging. This spot looks fairly good after extensive “dead-leafing” of daylily “Kwanso.”

August 25, 2013

The front garden looks deceptively lush and colourful.

August 18, 2013

This combination of blue fescue, brunnera “Jack Frost” and a euphorbia whose name I don’t know is particularly fetching. (Does anyone recognize the euphorbia? It has red stems and tiny leaves and grows to about 18 inches).

August 10, 2013

I’ve had this acanthus for years, during which it has gradually bulked up, and this year it finally bloomed. Quite impressive (to me, anyway).

August 10, 2013

Bee-watching is still a big thing, but…

August 5, 2013

…the summer is ending and I’m looking forward to fall, my favourite season, especially what I call the “fall spring,” when some spring-bloomers such as rhododendrons and Clematis armandii, for example, perk up and bloom a little. Mushrooms pop up, mosses and ferns are refreshed, leaves start to turn colour, and the gardener perceives hints of winter gravity behind the morning mists.